Scary Out There with Sarah Rees Brennan
It’s Scary Out There had a witchingly good time talking character, lore, and more with Sarah Rees Brennan, author of Season of the Witch, the tie-in novel for Netflix’s hit show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
With books like How to Hang a Witch, The Price Guide to the Occult, and Conversion, witchcraft in YA seems to be more popular than ever. Why do you think that is?
Witches are figures of female independence and social disobedience! I think whenever society is having a big conversation about how just our system actually is, how power can be achieved in different ways than traditional means, how women’s independence can be demonized, and how vulnerable people are treated as scapegoats, then witches become even more relevant and interesting to audiences. Just like the witch hunting in Miller’s The Crucible was written as an allegory for McCarthyism and suspicion directed at communists. If we don’t remember history, we are doomed to repeat it, but if we remember history and turn it into stories, if we live memories and stories and learn from them… then perhaps we can learn to live better.
How did you land this writing gig for Season of the Witch?
Just lucky, I guess. My fabulous editor at Scholastic, Beth Dunfey, reached out to me because she liked my Lynburn Legacy series, about a plucky girl reporter investigating dark Gothic supernatural happenings in a small town—I think she thought it would be a good fit for Sabrina dealing with the witchy goings on in Greendale. And we had mutual friends—she’s beautifully edited Maureen Johnson’s beautiful books in the past, so I knew I’d be in great hands with her. When she asked me, she asked if I’d be interested in writing tie-in novels for an unnamed new TV show. As a huge fan of Riverdale and the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I was already anticipating Sabrina, so I really thought ‘Wouldn’t it be the DREAM if it was Sabrina.’ I couldn’t believe it when it really was!
I now believe I have a fate with Sabrina. The actress who plays Sabrina will star in Maureen Johnson’s movie Let It Snow. The actor who portrays Theo did a friend’s drag make-up (and it was great). It’s all meant! Probably I did some dark magic I’ve forgotten about…
What was it like to write a story with characters you hadn’t created?
It was a lot of fun! I’ve done it before—I’ve written stories for anthologies in Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters world, among other things. There’s always a deep nervousness, because these are already-beloved characters, but it’s also an exciting challenge to find the liminal spaces to slide my way into, and opportunities to ask people questions that will make them think, and to show them things in a way that will make them care more. ‘Can I make people really sad this already-dead character is dead?’ is a task I’ve set myself a couple of times! It does mean trying to find a way into each character and what makes them tick, which can be a challenge, but is really rewarding. Some characters I felt I got right away, some I had to think and write my way into. And some of the characters I had to burrow my way into became some of my most beloved!
How did you research the characters for Season of the Witch?
I read everything I could get my hands on, both about them and about magic in general. I read the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina graphic novels, and the earlier comics, and refreshed my memory on the old TV show. In the graphic novels, Ambrose’s familiars are a pair of snakes with a cool backstory, and I tipped my hat to that by having Ambrose dance on the rooftops with an illusion of snakes in Season of the Witch—also establishing Ambrose as the wild, free, magical spirit he is.
Which character did you connect with the most and why?
The one who drew me to him first was Ambrose, the hedonist with a heart of gold who loves sexy group encounters and is passionately devoted to his family, but in the end the character I think I connected most with was Prudence! Not that I am a beautiful witch queen who slays with every glance of her disdainful eye, but I love a character who puts up a front of not caring at all when in fact she cares deeply, and her motivations are largely family, and wanting acceptance, and never letting anyone find out about that vulnerability, and that’s so relatable.
Which character was the most challenging to write and why?
I would say Theo. The mortals were all challenging to write in the prequel, because necessarily the mortals are in the dark about Sabrina’s secret of being a witch, and that means most of the plot has to happen without them. This happened in the TV show Arrow, I think—readers wanted to see more of the hero with the girl who knew his superhero secret, and not have people who didn’t know the supernatural secret come in and thus having the plot stall in its tracks. Added to that, Theo has a whole journey of coming out as trans, which is a wonderful journey, but in the prequel he isn’t there yet, and I worried a lot how to write him from inside his own head before those personal discoveries. I hope I did all right with it! Working on Book 3, it’s a real joy to write from Theo’s perspective: he’s come so far! And now he can bravely fling himself into adventures, supernatural and otherwise.
What is the significance behind the “What Happens in the Dark” chapters?
There is so much that happens in the dark, by which I mean outside of our own sight. People love us, people hate us, people are jealous of what we’ve got, when we don’t even realize we have it. The What Happens In the Dark chapters were meant to serve a dual purpose. They were meant to give the effect of the TV show, where we can see scenes with many different characters and many different situations—so we know what’s going on with Lilith when Sabrina doesn’t, for instance—but also to provide what only a book can, a deep dive into what people are really thinking and really feeling.
You wrote several rhyming spells for this book. Which one is your favorite?
I do love writing doggerel, though go to fabulous author Seanan McGuire if you want beautiful songs that scan properly! Once I yelled out a bunch of faerie doggerel to my friends on writing retreat while doing the washing up, so I couldn’t write it down and I couldn’t remember it later… So it was really fun to come up with spells for Sabrina! I’d say I like this one the best, because it starts out like a fairytale and ends up in horror, and I have fun switching up genres and using the resonance of each to amplify the other.
Mirror mirror, make me fairer
Face and heart, all things alter
Make me all that I could be.
Glory awaits, never falter
Never think to count the cost
Only look into my mirror
Believe there is nothing lost.
What was the most interesting witch lore that you stumbled across during your research?
I really love a Welsh legend that I found about a woman cursed after a local witch’s death, to have a second mouth on the back of her head so she ate rotted food and souls. The implication was that the woman was punished for the witch’s death, for judging and condemning the witch, and that her judgement was wrong—that we shouldn’t damn others that way, even witches, was a moral I could get behind! Plus, it’s super creepy. You’ll find that legend in one of the Sabrina books for sure…
“The moon shone behind you like a crown of bone, and the night streamed behind you like a cloak of shadows. I could see you were born to be a witch of legend.” — page 81, Season of the Witch
Who is your favorite legendary or literary witch and why?
Oh, I do love a lot of witches. I’m very into Arthurian legend, so I almost said Morgan le Fay! But Circe turning men who offended her into pigs is, as they say, sometimes a Big Mood. (Is that where the saying ‘men are pigs’ comes from? Truly, a legend.)
Why do you think some young people gravitate toward dark literature?
G.K. Chesterton said ‘Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragon can be killed.’ Life can be really rough for young people! They’re aware that life can be scary: stories that admit that feel true to them. I think there’s always a light to be found in the dark, and safety to be found in the scariest stories. There’s security to be found in being scared, but knowing you-the-audience will ultimately be all right. Seeing characters deal with ghosts and monsters lets you believe you can deal with what looms in your own particular darkness.
What were your favorite horror stories as a teen?
Oh, I loved the Goosebumps books, I loved R.L. Stine. I’ve always been a speed reader, and my brother used to time me reading Goosebumps books. In my prime I could read one in fifteen minutes! I adored Interview with the Vampire—I’ve always liked the idea of monsters who can love, but who remain monstrous and strange.
Since we’re talking stories and not just books, I loved the original Scream movie and how it subverts horror tropes by analyzing them. It really made me think about ways to make a genre both exciting for people who are used to it, and to serve a cool introduction for people who aren’t familiar with it.
What scares you? It can be something from your own writing, a childhood fear, etc.
Seaweed! I spent my whole childhood in a house by the sea, and I read a book where the Morrigan (the Irish queen of phantoms!) enchants seaweed to come creeping up the shore and cover and smother the heroes. It was a stormy night when I was reading, and I looked out at the churned white waves on the dark shore and just thought ‘This is IT.’ Ever since then whenever I walk by the seashore or swim in the sea, I eye seaweed suspiciously. My friends think it’s funny, as I have no fear of dark alleyways or heights.
How is writing horror or dark literature for teens different from writing any other genre for teens?
I don’t know that it is much different, because every story for teens is a story about growing up, and loving people, and having your first adventures… and that’s so scary. Sometimes it ends badly! You hope not this time. But maybe… Either way, the writer shouldn’t flinch. But the reader gets to!
Is there a horror writer whose work has influenced or inspired you, and what did you learn from their writing?
Stephen King! Perhaps a horror cliché, but I really love him. I’ve read his books on writing and horror, On Writing and Danse Macabre, and I highly recommend them. Perhaps my most inspirational moment with King was when I was reading his book Bag of Bones late at night in bed. (My first mistake!) The hero of the book is reading a book his wife was reading before she died, and he’s lying in bed too, and he drops the book… and when he reaches down to get it, his dead wife is reaching from under the bed for her book… I got such a scare, I dropped the book! Then I looked at it, lying down there by the bed, and I imagined seeing someone dead under MY bed, and I was like ‘Nope. No, the book can stay there until morning. Enjoy, dead people.’ Then I thought: Stephen King planned this! I’ve heard that you should write solely for yourself, and I do write for myself, but I write partly for other people as well. I love readers! I love people interacting with stories. And that moment with Stephen King gave me permission, I think, to think more of my readers when I write—where they might be, if they were cozy or in need of comfort, or dreaming of love in the sunshine, or poised in the dark ready to be scared.
What writing wisdom would you like to share with young horror writers?
Maya Angelou said ‘People will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.’ I think my story above about Stephen King confirms that—I won’t forget not reaching down for the book in a hurry! Always think: How do you want to make them feel? How do you achieve that—what rings true to you, and what do you have to do to make it ring true to others?
If you could be any character in the Sabrina-verse, which would you be and why?
Definitely Aunt Hilda! I’d want to be a witch, because as a mortal I might get ensorceled or murdered, but I’d want to be a kind witch who likes mortals, and Hilda is the kindest witch around. Aunt Hilda’s a keen reader and cook, dates a guy (incubus, whatever) who runs a bookstore (the dream!), but she never lets anyone cross her or those she loves… even if that means dark spells or arsenic cookies. I feel you, Hilda.
Can we expect more Chilling Adventures of Sabrina novels in the future?
You sure can! I’m currently writing Book 3, featuring romance in Paris, death-defying quests in Greendale, and terrible temptation in hell. And Book 2, Daughter of Chaos, is out this December. Each of the books is set within gaps in the story, So Book 1, Season of the Witch, is a prequel set just before the show begins, in which Sabrina is feeling her way toward becoming a witch as summer ends amid love spells and water demons, showcasing her relationship with her cousin Ambrose and how it’s changing as she grows up, and she learns more about both witches and mortals, family and romance—how people can disappoint you, hurt you… and love you. And Daughter of Chaos is set after Part 1, just after the Christmas special. It’s a New Year’s story, about searching for luck and new love, and in the process having Sabrina, Harvey, Nick and Prudence find a Prince of Hell, and a curse with a long shadow. Sabrina’s dealing with heartbreak and having committed herself to the path of witchcraft, Harvey has lost and Prudence found family, and Nick—to Harvey’s alarm—wants Harvey to tell him about mortal courtship so Nick can woo Sabrina.
5 Quick Questions
Baxter High or The Academy of Unseen Arts? Academy of Unseen Arts!
Team Harvey, Team Nick, or Team Sabrina? Team Sabrina! (I love you Nick and Harvey, but it’s her story, so I have to root for her.)
Path of light or path of night? Path of Night!
What animal is your familiar? A shark!
What’s your strongest witch power? Does speedreading count?
About Sarah Rees Brennan:
Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of The Demon’s Lexicon and Lynburn Legacy series; Tell the Wind and Fire and In Other Lands; and several collaborations with writers Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, and Kelly Link. She lives in Ireland. Her website can be found at www.sarahreesbrennan.com